(I had so much distress) for soprano, bass, vocal ensemble, trumpet I–III, oboe, timpani, strings and basso continuo
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«Lutzogram» for the introductory workshop
Rudolf Lutz’s manuscript for the workshop
The sound recording of this work is available on several streaming and download platforms.
Lia Andres, Olivia Fündeling-Heiniger, Simone Schwark, Noëmi Sohn Nad, Noëmi Tran-Rediger, Maria Weber
Jan Börner, Katharina Jud, Liliana Lafranchi, Francisca Näf, Alexandra Rawohl
Manuel Gerber, Achim Glatz, Tobias Mäthger, Walter Siegel
Matthias Lutze, Grégoire May, Valentin Parli, Daniel Pérez, Philippe Rayot
Renate Steinmann, Monika Baer, Claire Foltzer, Elisabeth Kohler, Olivia Schenkel, Salome Zimmermann
Susanna Hefti, Matthias Jäggi, Martina Zimmermann
Martin Zeller, Daniel Rosin
Patrick Henrichs, Peter Hasel, Klaus Pfeiffer
Musical director & conductor
Niklaus Peter Barth, Rudolf Lutz
Recording & editing
Trogen AR (Schweiz) // Evangelische Kirche
Stefan Ritzenthaler, Nikolaus Matthes
GALLUS MEDIA AG, Switzerland
J.S. Bach Foundation of St. Gallen, Switzerland
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About the work
1714 in Weimar; “Cöthen version” around 1720/21 (Cöthen/Zerbst)
Poet unknown: probably Salomo Franck
In terms of its genesis, cantata BWV 21 numbers among the most complex works in Bach’s cantata oeuvre, with no less than three different sets of original parts bearing witness to revisions for various occasions. These include Bach’s audition as organist in Halle in 1713, a performance in Weimar in 1714, a presumed performance in Hamburg in 1720, and a Leipzig version – complete with trombones – in 1723; the surviving materials also contain evidence of further revisions after Bach’s death in 1750. The modifications to the different versions relate not only to key, vocal scoring, number of movements and occasion of the composition (Third Day after Trinity or “for any occasion”); questions also remain as to whether the libretto, which is generally ascribed to Salomo Franck, may also have undergone revisions.
None of these circumstances, however, diminish the cantata’s rigour and persuasive power. Indeed, the oboe solo of the sinfonia, set over a string group that is celebrated like a viol consort and a continuo line of burdened steps, establishes a plaintive underlying tone; in the fermatas on the interrupted cadences, this mood climaxes in a sorrow that nonetheless radiates a noble magnanimity and leaves room for hope. The key of C minor exudes a muted, secretive light, like a candle ickering precariously in a gloomy vault.
After this introduction, the unusual text declamation in the introductory chorus appears less awkward than distinctive. Drawn out over a descending bass line, the three calls of “Ich” (I) and the emphatic note repetitions lend the lament a subjective sense of urgency, and the successively denser entries allow a kaleidoscope of trials to emerge. A rhetorical colon on the word “Aber” (but) then sets the stage for the faster second section that evokes the uplifting effect of the Saviour’s words of solace; an extended final phrase closes a movement that at once harks back to the sacred concerto-style settings of Bach’s earliest cantatas (such as “Aus der Tiefen” – From the depths) and also signals a new orchestral drive.
The soprano aria is presented as a setting of great delicacy; the oboe cantilena, replete with suspended notes, is taken up by the vocalist, who must bridge the pauses of the halting bassline. In the following accompagnato recitative, this touching, Passion-like atmosphere evolves into a lament of utter abandonment addressed directly to God. In this scene of abject suffering, Bach expresses the fleeting warmth – and all-the-more painful loss – of bygone happiness (“Du warest meine Lust” – Thou wast once my delight) in a Romantic palette of colour that one would hardly date before Schubert or Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
In the aria “Bäche von gesalznen Zähren” (Streams of salty tears), which in our recording is assigned to the soprano, emotional numbness gives way to the cathartic sobbing of a continuous chain of sighs; set in the sombre key of F minor, the tonality, too, has reached an emotional extreme. In the changing tempi of the middle section, Bach’s rendering of towering waves and muddy abysses evoke grim images that both fulfil and transcend the rhetorical codes of baroque opera.
The well-known Psalm verse “Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele” (Why art thou distressed, O my spirit) is set as a carefully orchestrated ensemble movement in which every line is assigned its own distinct style. From the fearful questioning of the opening line, continuing on to the nervous agitation and the “Harren und Danken” (trusting and thanking) that is answered by the oboe, through to the closing fugue on the line “Dass er meines Angesichtes und mein Gott ist” (that he of my countenance is the help and my God) – this chorus reveals precisely the comforting potential inherent in the Old Testament descriptions of an experience of God.
Commencing after the sermon, the second part of the cantata opens with an accompagnato recitative whose imploring question of “Ach Jesu, meine Ruh, mein Licht, wo bleibest du?” (Ah Jesus, my repose, my light, where bidest thou?) is answered by the bass in the role of the Saviour (“O Seele, sieh! Ich bin bei dir” – O Soul, behold! I am with thee). The soprano’s disbelieving wonder and the sonorous presence of the bass then meld in an intimate duet; in light of the pain already suffered, the joy in being reunited is particularly credible. This spirit of fellowship is indulged to the full in a duet with continuo accompaniment, whose cheerful, almost coquet bass figure suggests that modern society would benefit from cultivating a trusting love for Jesus, a theology that has been lost in our post-Enlightenment thinking. The whispered sweet nothings woven into the movement’s foundation of Lutheran justification through faith and the doctrine of the Eucharist render settings of this type a joy for both the senses and the intellect.
A further chorus movement then introduces the dimension of chorale singing by combining a motet-like treatment of the Psalm text“Sei nun wieder zufrieden, meine Seele” (Be now once more contented, O my spirit) with a presentation of two verses from Georg Neumark’s hymn of solace “Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten” (If thou but suffer God to guide thee). In this setting, the melody is initially presented in the venerable form of a tenor cantus firmus before moving to the soprano register, a shift reflecting the flexible, organ-based approach of the composer.
A soprano aria with a supple bass cantilena, a movement that was probably not included in the original version, bids farewell to all woes before the closing chorus transforms this personal testimony into a universal promise of salvation. Mighty full-choir entries and rousing trumpet fanfares praise the lamb’s redeeming sacrifice ere an extended fugue celebrates with ever-increasing emphasis the text of “Lob und Ehre und Preis und Gewalt sei unserm Gott von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit. Alleluja!” (Fame and honour and praise and great might be to our God from evermore to evermore. Amen, alleluia!). Here, the logical structure of the permutation fugue ensures clarity of sound while seeming to crush all evil in its gigantic machinery of praise.
Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis
in meinem Herzen;
aber deine Tröstungen
erquicken meine Seele.
3. Arie — Sopran
Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not,
ängstlichs Sehnen, Furcht und Tod
nagen mein beklemmtes Herz,
ich empfinde Jammer, Schmerz.
Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not!
4. Rezitativ — Sopran
Wie hast du dich, mein Gott,
in meiner Not,
in meiner Furcht und Zagen
denn ganz von mir gewandt?
Ach! kennst du nicht dein Kind?
Ach! hörst du nicht das Klagen
von denen, die dir sind
mit Bund und Treu verwandt?
Du warest meine Lust
und bist mir grausam worden:
Ich suche dich an allen Orten;
ich ruf und schrei dir nach,
allein: mein Weh und Ach!
scheint itzt, als sei es dir ganz
5. Arie — Sopran
Bäche von gesalznen Zähren,
Fluten rauschen stets einher.
Sturm und Wellen mich versehren,
und dies trübsalsvolle Meer
will mir Geist und Leben schwächen,
Mast und Anker wollen brechen,
hier versink ich in den Grund,
dort seh in der Hölle Schlund.
Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele,
und bist so unruhig in mir?
Harre auf Gott!
Denn ich werde ihm noch danken,
daß er meines Angesichtes Hülfe
und mein Gott ist
Nach der Predigt
7. Rezitativ — Duett Sopran, Bass
Ach Jesu, meine Ruh,
mein Licht, wo bleibest du?
O Seele, sieh! ich bin bei dir.
Hier ist ja lauter Nacht.
Ich bin dein treuer Freund,
der auch im Dunkeln wacht,
wo lauter Schalken seind.
Brich doch mit deinem Glanz
des Trostes ein!
Die Stunde kömmet schon,
da deines Kampfes Kron
dir wird ein süßes Labsal sein.
8. Arie — Duett Sopran, Bass
Komm, mein Jesu,
Ja, ich komme und erquicke
und erfreu mit deinem Blicke!
dich mit meinem Gnadenblicke.
die soll sterben
die soll leben
und nicht leben,
und nicht sterben,
und in ihrer Unglückshöhle
hier aus dieser Wunden Höhle
sollt du erben.
Ich muß stets in Kummer
Heil durch diesen Saft der
ja, ach ja, ich bin verloren,
nein, ach nein, du bist erkoren,
nein, ach nein, du hassest
ja, ach ja, ich liebe dich.
Ach, Jesu, durchsüße mir Seele
Entweichet, ihr Sorgen,
verschwinde, du Schmerze!
«Sei nun wieder zufrieden,
meine Seele, denn der Herr
tut dir Guts.»
Was helfen uns die schweren Sorgen,
was hilft uns unser Weh und Ach?
Was hilft es, daß wir alle Morgen
beseufzen unser Ungemach?
Wir machen unser Kreuz und Leid
nur größer durch die Traurigkeit.
Denk nicht in deiner Drangsalshitze,
daß du von Gott verlassen seist,
und daß Gott der im Schoße sitze,
der sich mit stetem Glücke speist.
Die folgend Zeit verändert viel
und setzet jeglichem sein Ziel.
10. Arie — Sopran
Erfreue dich, Seele, erfreue
entweiche nun, Kummer,
verschwinde, du Schmerze!
Verwandle dich, Weinen,
in lauteren Wein!
Es wird nun mein Ächzen
ein Jauchzen mir sein.
Es brennet und flammet
die reineste Kerze
der Liebe, des Trostes
in Seele und Brust,
weil Jesus mich tröstet
mit himmlischer Lust.
Das Lamm, das erwürget ist,
ist würdig zu nehmen Kraft
und Reichtum und Weisheit
und Stärke und Ehre und
Preis und Lob.
Lob und Ehre und Preis und
Gewalt sei unserm Gott von
Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit, amen,
alleluja! Amen, alleluja, Lob!
“I have had much sorrow in my heart;
but thy consolations refresh my soul.”
Yes – when the time comes for me to come face to face with God, I would prefer it to be exactly like this: like the breathtaking conclusion of this cantata, unleashed, unconcerned, free of doubt, rejoicing in many voices in unison. Johann Sebastian Bach sweeps us from the pews in an unprecedented surge of upwardly whirling cascades, revealing his own apotheosis. That Bach is the fifth evangelist, this statement is truly no coincidence. Similarly captivating musical moments – there are many of them, as our long-time concertgoers have experienced several times – they certainly confirm the bold qualification. Bach, however, as an ordinary human being, was sufficiently situated in the objectively and subjectively given dreariness of human reality that he was also urged to present his encounters with God darkly, sighing, lamenting, weeping, hesitant, demanding, angry, weary and surrendered. The present cantata is, in my view, one of the most complete sequences of the most diverse sensations of how a human being can feel in the great face of God. From infinitely miserable and abandoned to infinitely liberated and happy. Dense music! Worth performing twice in one evening….
As founder and president of the Johann Sebastian Bach Foundation, I am often asked about my relationship to faith. Some would like to extract an unreserved confession from me, others would like to assign me to their philosophical-existentialist camp. It is about the “Gretchen question”, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger put it here six months ago and took the opportunity to reject everything categorical, including atheism. It never ceases to amaze me how apodictically this Gretchen question is put forward, how high the expectations are that the answer will enable us to better divide the world into friend and foe. Yet it is precisely here that shades and hues of all kinds would be in place – and room for scepticism, doubt or even quiet trust in God. Behind many a loudly expressed confession and many a philosophically dressed up accumulation of words, a lack of ability or willingness to engage in one’s own metaphysical occupation is not infrequently hidden. Metaphysical preoccupation is exhausting, has a lot to do with sorrow, and it does not at all fit into today’s age of unlimited technical possibilities and boundless feasibility. Recently, we are supposed to be able to live forever. Technology is able to banish death… Perhaps it would be the rampant metaphysical non-occupation that should be a cause for concern!
I believe that I am lucky, or, if you like, blessed, to have a fairly undisturbed relationship with the question of God. Yet it could have turned out differently. My mother, of Pietist origin, urged us children to live a relatively narrow life of faith, not far removed from religious zeal. My father, on the other hand, hardly ever let us look at his cards and at most played the agnostic stoic. In my youth, the Second World War with its abysmal horrors was still too striking for one to speak of an omnipotent God or a benevolent father without very justified reservations. The full-bodied, enthusiastic “God is love” of the Sunday school days froze in the burst of knowledge of my adolescence. The reading of Celan, Nietzsche and Camus was designed to stifle the last religious impulses. Even the well-intentioned confirmation classes of the Linsebühl priest didn’t help.
If it hadn’t been for my dreaded mathematics teacher, who, to loosen things up between all the algebraic and geometric crises, offered some bright pupils the opportunity to give lectures on basic mathematical questions and personalities. I chose the German mathematician, logician and philosopher Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), who was the first to develop a formal language and, related to it, formal proofs. He influenced thinkers such as Rudolf Carnap, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Frege not only described logic conclusively and applied it, but also reached its limits and unintentionally transgressed them. In 1902, Bertrand Russell pointed out to him an insoluble contradiction, namely the so-called Russell’s antinomy. It says that the set of all sets cannot contain itself or cannot be the set of all sets.
Just as Russell’s letter in 1902 plunged his colleague Frege into the greatest sorrow, because he had to consider his life’s work of the unambiguous presentation of logic as a failure, so the reading of this literature became for me the turning point of my world view. Russell’s antinomy was never satisfactorily resolved. Since then, it has been taken for granted that human logic has limits. I soon suspected that the finite cannot adequately describe the infinite, and a few years later, in the course of work for my largely formal logic dissertation, I discovered that value judgements cannot be made with binary yes/no logic, but at best described, emulated. Even later, the great mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, whom I had the pleasure of meeting personally, taught me that the more precisely one measures, the more precisely one checks and corrects, and the more one tries to avoid an error, the bigger and weightier it becomes. I only found a way out of the deep sorrow about the inherent control deficit of human beings through the assumption, outside of all logic, that there must be something higher, something supernatural, which cancels out logic and contradictions, which is impossible for us to understand comprehensively and which we can at most guess at in one way or another.
Without the inkling of this superordinate incomprehensible, the world would have become and remained hopelessly empty and bleak for me in every respect. Like those abdication rituals at which, instead of celebrating a church service, the memory of the deceased is celebrated. “You will live on in us forever!”, they solemnly affirm. And people don’t even notice that they have just been taken in by an instant reincarnation doctrine.
At the end, however, because it is not possible without God, a mumbled “Our Father” is muttered. It is like this: The world of the void of God has not yet found its rituals. Perhaps it will never be able to. Because something is missing.
Of course, I am far from wanting to prove God with the limitations of human ability. Where logic comes to its end, the “proof” is in any case without content. But precisely for this reason, I think that the joyful acceptance of the existence of an instance that signifies the infinite and thus the incomprehensible is very helpful in real life. Our sorrows are not everything, they are not the last thing. This puts many things into perspective. Above all, the presumption of power to which we are notoriously exposed, whether in the big picture of world events or in the small microcosm of our narrower living conditions. The figure of Jesus is central for me because it is the ultimate rejection of any assumption of power. Power – which ultimately means blackmail, taking away, locking away, torture, killing, always practised between people – is the cause of distress par excellence. The idea of the completely delivered, tortured and killed deity is and remains, as one wishes, the scandalous or grandiose counter-design to the primitive power figure of man. Faith in the resurrection from this divinely staged powerlessness is, seen in this light, actually the only conceivable consolation for this abysmal and dark valley of sorrow.
So I go through life relatively cheerfully. My faith is quite agnostic, that is, I do not let myself go far out on the branches as to exactly how “it” might behave. Theologically dressed-up sophistry is anathema to me, and I don’t like to argue about the so-called “right” faith. Yes, I think that most of the evil of this world stems from the priestly presumption of being right in matters of faith. I prefer to stick to Huldrych Zwingli’s beautifully tautological sentence: “Faith is that essential and fixed thing in our souls which is given by Him who is Himself the ground and content of our hope and its expectation” (from the treatise “Providence” of 1530). In the light of the assumption of something still greater, still more comprehensive, the tautology dissolves logically.
Why is it easier to go through life in this way, more carefree? Firstly, because I don’t have to assume that God has a plan behind everything that has happened and is happening in this world. My relatively agnostic view allows for independence, personal responsibility, affection, coincidences, strokes of fate, abysmal meanness and abominations among people. They belong to the God-likeness bestowed on him, the human being, and the responsibility for his actions that goes with it. But I believe: it is not everything, it is not the end. In the end, non-power, love prevails.
Secondly: Measured against the infinitely incomprehensible, it is also easier to deal with new and perhaps sometimes seemingly inappropriate human insights. What does it do to the ocean if a new stream pours into it? So I deal with the writings of the modern prophets, the great philosophers and writers from Kant to Nietzsche to Camus and Heidegger, quite calmly. Yes, they hear right. I classify the philosophers of the Enlightenment or even existentialism as a different kind of prophet. On the one hand, it is impossible to see why there should no longer be such prophets after Christ. On the other hand, it is already the case: After what they wrote, one must think and speak differently about God than before. But the ocean remains the ocean, no matter how stimulating and perhaps even corrosive the streams may be. I remain similarly calm in the face of the latest flowering of human knowledge, artificial intelligence (AI). Even this body of water will not make the sea of infinity any fuller.
Thirdly: Now and then, the sky opens up for us just a little bit. Those who go through their lives attentively have such experiences, as the hatches of our strange ark of life open a little and allow a glimpse of the all-reconciling rainbow. Namely, when angels cross our path of life. Hummler, who is quite an agnostic, has meanwhile become tolerant of the idea of emissaries from higher missions. In the past, I would have rejected the idea far and wide. But due to my own life experience, I have become a little more cautious. What was it like back then when the young father of a family fell down the south face of the 4th Kreuzberg towards the Rhine valley? The grassy Bödeli came just in time, it allowed for an emergency landing, as if a guardian angel had said: No, Konrad, it’s too early, you still have to do one or two things. Or how was it recently when the elderly mother-in-law in Holland was suddenly dying and every minute counted for my wife and me to be able to say goodbye to her? Everything worked out for the best, as if guided by an invisible hand: From free seats on the plane, to the early take-off and landing, to the rental car already ready to drive, to the absence of traffic jams on the otherwise notoriously congested Dutch motorways. Mother was still alive half an hour after we arrived, her dying, a relieved exhalation of life, brought me the realisation that death can be a beautiful thing. Was there an accumulation of coincidences at play? Perhaps. Then coincidences are also angels.
But mostly they are people like you and me, far from playing angels in normal life. For example, the old film producer Arthur Cohn, who at the height of the Wegelin crisis, when I was ousted from the presidency of the NZZ board of directors, brought me three lucky Asian elephants out of the blue (we didn’t know each other at all before) and whispered to me: “It’s going to be all right, Mr Hummler”. Or Peter Sloterdijk, who is anything but an angel in his main profession, who one and a half years later awarded me the Myschkin Recognition Prize in Leipzig alongside Noam Chomsky and with this unexpected gesture strengthened my resolve to persevere with the Bach project. Or this light figure of a young woman suffering from leukaemia who, despite several dramatic near-death experiences and the most terrible life experiences, continuously conveys courage to live to her fellow human beings – our family is one of them. As a role model of confidence in the greatest sorrow!
What do angels do in particular? They allow gracious fates, convey humanity and love where this would not be expected, give the right impetus where one would not be able to get any further on one’s own. Out of the blue, like undeserved manna from heaven. Pay attention to that: Your life has seen more angels than you think. And be a little grateful to them.
Yes, and then there are the hatches of music. What would we be in our strange and often very dark ark of life without those glimpses of light that give us a tiny bit of that picture that Paul says we can only guess at for the time being as pieces? Pieces, mosaic pieces: but at least that! The mysterious thing about it is that the picture is not simply glistening, shining, golden. Precisely not. In other words, it is not an overloaded altar that overwhelms us with beauty and whose splendour ultimately bores us. No, the picture knows dark colours and quiet tones. Yes, it seems to me that the musical divine premonition first appears precisely where there is suffering and fear wants to spread, where despair is near and hopelessness threatens to reign. Nothing can express compassion better than music. Think of the wonderful “Erbarme dich” aria in the St Matthew Passion or – just now – the opening symphony of today’s cantata. Suffering – and who would claim that there is not more than enough of it? – is part of our image of God, not the opposite, and that is what makes it so comforting. When I suffer, I do not suffer alone.
But it does not stop at suffering. In every composition by the Thomaskantor, there is a turning towards the ultimate beauty. Like no other, Bach manages to organise pilgrimages through our emotional state and to start there, where every objection, every “yes, but” falls silent and a little piece of heavenly glory flashes up. I think Bach deliberately wanted the Alleluia in today’s cantata to degenerate almost to slurring, and I am also grateful to our musical director Rudolf Lutz for intoning it in this way. There is the moment when only speechlessness is possible. And: the moment of unearthly beauty cannot last. We are still in real life; hence the abrupt ending, which one regrets so painfully.
Speechlessness, slurring, abrupt conclusion – that is now. We are limited. The world is limited. But that will not have been all. The core sentence of the cantata reads:
“The time that follows changes many things and sets every man his goal.”
It will be unlimited, I believe.
This text has been translated with DeepL (www.deepl.com).